More Bortrum Bio - Breyer's Ice Cream
Last month I started my memoirs, "Bortrum's Bio". On looking it over, I found numerous places where I should have tightened up the writing and corrected dubious grammar. My brother Conrad also found some mistakes, which I've corrected. I also realize that I left out an important incident that occurred during my early childhood while living in Philadelphia. Hence, I'll start out with a continuation of Chapter 1, which ended with our move to Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
CHAPTER 1 (CONTINUED)
You may be familiar with the recent flap involving Dr. Laura Schlesinger, a radio personality who gave up her popular radio program after her repeated use of the so-called N-word. The story about Dr. Laura brought to mind my own hearing that word for the first time I can recall. Associated with that memory is an event that you can read about in great detail by putting the words "Princess Anne" "Maryland" and "lynching" into your Google or other search engine.
It was in October 1933, when I was 5 years old and living in Philadelphia, that we drove to Princess Anne to visit my grandmother, aunts and cousins. Perhaps memory fails me but I don't recall my mother using the N-word at home; it was certainly used routinely in describing a black person in Princess Anne. My grandmother owned a house just off the main street and rented out rooms to boarders to raise money. On that day in 1933, I remember that as we drove into town there were police or militia of some sort with guns lined up along the street. For a 5-year-old, this was an unforgettable sight.
That night there was a lynching, the last one in the state of Maryland. A young black man was accused of attacking an elderly woman. The young man may have been "feeble minded", according to some reports. He had been taken to Baltimore by the authorities, specifically to avoid the possibility of him being lynched. Not too many years earlier there had been a lynching in nearby Salisbury, Maryland. In spite of this apparent concern about his fate, he was brought back to Princess Anne, where he was indeed horribly put to death. I won't go into the gruesome details - you can find accounts of the lynching on the Internet.
What you won't find in these accounts is my grandmother's role in the affair. She, Ida Pusey, was a small woman, only 4 feet, 9 inches tall. My mother sent me to bed early that night to make sure I didn't witness the event. The lynch mob decided to hang the fellow, who may already have been dead, on a large tree in my grandmother's yard. Here I quote from my cousin Phyllis's genealogical history of the Pusey branch of our family. "One incident, when I admired her (my grandmother) the most, was the night she stood up to a lynch mob. They were going to use a tree in her yard. She told them they were not and she stood there on her side porch. They backed down and left." My grandmother was not one to back down from her convictions of right and wrong. Well, you can imagine that even though I did not actually witness the lynching, the contrast in racial relations culminating in the election of Barack Obama has been perhaps more impressive for me than for most white people not having had contact with such an example of racial hatred.
I think this really does end my recollections of life while living in Philadelphia. Let's continue on to Chapter 2 and life in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
CHAPTER 2 - LIFE IN MECHANICSBURG AND BREYER'S ICE CREAM
When we moved to Mechanicsburg I was either in or slated to enter the fourth grade; however, someone in the school system thought I was too young and wanted to put me back in 3rd grade. My mother, of course, would not hear of such an idea. She won out and it was to be the second of four times that she would strongly play a role in my academic life, the first being the tutoring in Philadelphia that landed me one and a half skipped grades.
At that time, I believe it was 1935, Mechanicsburg was a small town of perhaps 5,700 or so individuals and we rented a house at 102 East Keller Street. The house was what I would call a side-by-side duplex with our neighbors, the Sponslers, living in the other side of the house. Our landlord was Luther Beetem, a coal dealer. We had a coal furnace and had to shovel coal out of our coal bin into the furnace to keep the fire burning during the colder periods of the year. Although we had indoor plumbing, the backyard contained an old fashioned outhouse that saw occasional use when the need arose quickly or when one needed to hide from neighborhood kids. There was a chicken coop in the yard and for a while we had a hen or two that supplied us with fresh eggs so, in a sense, I had some farming experience.
We also had a female Boston terrier, Runtsy. If I remember correctly, there was some reason that Runstsy was not to have puppies. I recall watching curiously as another dog mounted her and I was thoroughly reprimanded by my mother for allowing this act. I was totally unfamiliar with the concept of sex at that time and now assume that was my first contact with the subject. Runtsy ended up being poisoned, why or by whom I don't know, and never had puppies so I couldn't be blamed for allowing the dalliance.
This past month we all were lucky that the two asteroids that passed between our Earth and the Moon didn't actually hit our planet. I didn't see any estimates of what would have happened if they had plunged into our atmosphere. In the range of roughly 20 to 60 some feet in size, I imagine that some sizeable chunks might have survived that could have killed someone had they landed in the right place. I also saw a report this month that some amateur astronomers had seen a couple of objects hit Jupiter. Such events certainly show the role of chance in shaping life on a planet, not that we know of any life on Jupiter. It was in Mechanicsburg that I first experienced the role played by chance in the preserving of a life - my own. My life preserver was Breyer's ice cream.
In Mechanicsburg, our milkman regularly delivered our raw milk from Konhaus Dairy. Today, most of us city dwellers would not think of taking such a chance with unpasteurized milk. A routine Sunday treat was to either make or buy ice cream for dessert. In those days we would save the cream, which rose to the top of the bottles of raw milk and take turns cranking the freezer containing the ice cream mixture. As I recall, the mixture also contained raw eggs, not a great idea today with all the salmonella! The ice cream was delicious, enhanced by the satisfying feeling of accomplishing the manual effort turning the crank as the mix hardened. On those Sundays that we didn't make our own ice cream we would buy a quart or two from the Rakestraw's ice cream factory just a block up the alley from our house. If not Rakestraw's, we would get Breyer's hand dipped ice cream from a neighborhood store a few blocks farther away.
On this Sunday in 1938, when I was ten years old, I was the one delegated to pick up the ice cream and the decision was made for me to walk the extra distance to get Breyer's ice cream. Both Breyer's and Rakestraw's ice creams were really good. Well, I got the Breyer's ice cream. It turned out that, at the time I would have been at Rakestraw's, there was an explosion in the ammonia part of the plant and at least one, maybe two young girls were killed in the explosion. (I recall two deaths but I note in a column I wrote describing the event after talking about a decade ago to a Rakestraw's employee, I used the phrase "at least one girl". Googling didn't reveal anything on the explosion.) A neighbor of ours was slightly injured in the explosion.
After the explosion, Rakestraw's changed its way of selling ice cream to individuals. Whereas before we had to go into the factory to purchase the ice cream, they built an addition where the customers were served in a facility that did not require entering the factory per se. Over the years this became a very popular place to indulge your sweet tooths. Later, after I married and we moved to New Jersey we would stop on the way back from the Pittsburgh area to pick up a quart or two of Rakestraw's ice cream packed in dry ice to keep it frozen until we were back in new Jersey. However, understandably, my fondness for Breyer's remains with me to this day. Hey, it really did save my life!
Life as a child in a small town in the 1930s was in retrospect idyllic. In the summer we waited for the ice truck to come to deliver our big chunk of ice for our icebox. We would gather the cooling chips of ice as he chipped away our particular chunk. We, of course, had a bread man, a milkman, a meat man and a vegetable man, all of whom came around in their respective vehicles. My aforementioned cousin Phyllis lived with us when she came up from Princess Anne to work in a local silk factory. Phyllis married our bread man, Richard Kaley, who was divorced and had a child. In her genealogy history, Phyllis mentioned that our grandmother, she of the slight stature, was so unhappy with the marriage that she refused to talk to Phyllis until she saw the baby produced by the marriage. Apparently, seeing her first great granddaughter prompted my grandmother to reconsider her objections to the marriage.
In those days, of course, there was no TV and we would sit around the radio, which in one case was a quite impressive console model that sat on the floor and was about 3 or 4 feet high. I listened to Orphan Annie, Buck Rogers, The Shadow, Amos and Andy and as I grew older began to appreciate the wit and humor of shows such as those of Jack Benny, Fred Allen and Fibber Magee and Molly. Lowell Thomas was the newscaster we most respected. For pictorial news we relied on the Fox Movietone News shorts that were shown along with the feature films at our local movie theater, where, as I recall, we spent 5 or 10 cents on a Saturday afternoon to see a double feature.
Somewhere along the line, our landlord sold the house we were renting and we moved to another of his houses, also on Keller Street. Later, we were forced to move again, renting another house on Keller Street! To cap it off, my final home in Mechanicsburg was another rented house just two doors off Keller Street, this house being essentially across the street from Rakestraw's. It wasn't until I left home for graduate school that my parents finally bought a house - on Keller Street. (Years later, one of my fellow graduate students never let me forget the time he drove me home on a break from grad school and I couldn't remember where my parents' new home was but finally identified it when we saw my father in the living room!)
Sports played an important role in my childhood. We played football and baseball in the street and basketball in the alley. A crude form of hockey was played on roller skates and I recall banging my head against a tree when I lost control of the puck and my sense of direction. But it was baseball that was my real passion and we had a twilight league in our area that pitted teams from other towns against our own Mechanicsburg team. Many's the evening we spent watching the games and we got to know all the players from the opposing teams and spirited exchanges between fans and players added to the enjoyment.
On the radio, we listened to Byrum Saam broadcast the games involving the Philadelphia Athletics and the Phillies, both typically mired in or near last place in those days. When Saam broadcasted away games he would receive the bare details of the game over the wire/ticker tape and it was many years before I realized that all the flowery details Saam was relating regarding the type of pitch, a fielder chasing the ball and getting the rebound off the wall - all the details were made up. The only information Saam was getting was the end result, i.e., it was a single or a walk or whatever.
Living near Harrisburg, we could catch a train that would take us to Philadelphia and my parents knew a couple that lived near Shibe Park, home of the A's and the Phillies. The couple were the Chaplins, an interesting couple who marketed a patent medicine known as Falbro. Falbro was a foul tasting concoction that I imagine involved some form of sulfur and that, along with some sort of laxative pills, were a fairly frequent part of our diet. The Chaplins also had a baseball autographed by members of, as I recall, the Yankees, possibly with Babe Ruth's name on it.
Well, I distinctly remember my first game in which I saw my first big league double play. It was Rizzuto to Gordon to a first baseman whose name I've forgotten. The execution of this double play was a thing of such beauty that I still remember it in awe. My hero in those days was Indian Bob Johnson, an outfielder for the A's. In those days I hated the Yankees, who would beat the A's by ungodly scores such as 20 -2 or the like. One doubleheader I saw DiMaggio strike out five times and my man Indian Bob turned in a sterling performance enhanced by a sliding catch of a line drive. I was in heaven.
At the end of his career, Indian Bob played for the Boston Red Sox and one of the saddest memories of my life was associated with a game I attended between the A's and the Sox at Shibe Park in 1944. Some of us had taken the train to Philly and gone to the game. On the platform waiting for our return train to arrive, we found ourselves on the same platform with the Red Sox waiting for another train. I got my hero's autograph on my scorecard along with that of Joe Cronin, Bobby Doerr and other Red Sox players. I was ecstatic! Would you believe that on the train home I fell asleep and awoke to find someone had taken my scorecard! The memory still is painful after some 66 years!
A more humorous incident also took place on one of our excursions to Shibe Park. We were attending a game between the Phillies and the ST. Louis Cardinals and Joe Garagiola was catching for the Cards. It was hot summer day and the crowd was rather sparse, given the usual last place position of the Phillies. At one point, Joe got caught by a foul tip, with ball striking a particularly sensitive part of the male anatomy. Garagiola was in obvious distress, walking around with a grimace on his face. Finally, he cried out, "Jeeeesus Christ!", the words echoing throughout the stadium. The crowd erupted in laughter and I speculate that might have been the moment that Joe realized the power of the spoken word and decided he would become a broadcaster in his post-baseball days. I sent this incident in to Reader's Digest but got no positive response.
In Mechanicsburg the park with the baseball field was at the other end of town and at our end of town we played on the street until someone had a great idea. There was a large tract of vacant land bordering the built-up area and someone, probably a parent or parents, decided that we could make our own field, which we did. The field was filled with all manner of growth with weeds and bushes and we somehow got tools we could use to cut down the growth and make a field. It wasn't the smoothest of surfaces but we managed to create a real field quite suitable for baseball. For about 60 years, I carried a memento in my mouth of the time I was pitching and Orville Myers was catching. I threw my knuckle ball to the batter and he popped the ball up between home plate and the pitcher's mound. Orville and I both went for the ball and my jaw collided with his catcher's mask, knocking off part of one of my teeth. My dentist, who had a very unimpressive office and used a burner of some sort to mix up a concoction to fill the tooth, did such a great job that it lasted for about 60 years before my current dentist decided it had to be replaced.
The field was across the street from the Ents' house. Jack and Uzal Ent were two of the fellows who played on the field and their parents were very accommodating. One day I was tossing a ball with our high school pitcher, Paul Brant. I was wearing a small version of a catcher's mitt, about half the size of a real one. Paul unexpectedly threw me some kind of pitch I did not anticipate and it ticked off my glove hitting me squarely between the eyes! I was carried unconscious across the street into the Ent's yard where I finally woke up. Apparently, I was surprisingly none the worse for the incident and went back across the street and recovered by pitching horseshoes. I went home and didn't mention the incident to my parents but the next day I came down and confronted my mother with two beautiful black eyes.
I believe it was in the Ents' yard that my brother Conrad got hit in the head with a shovel. It was also after a baseball game that he was hit by a car. We did have our share of bumps and bruises and I often wonder about the modern generation of kids growing up with their athletic endeavors pretty much limited to tapping on their iPods or perhaps getting a bit more exercise with their PlayStations.
Let's end this chapter with another of those incidents that could have resulted in my demise and, in this instance. the deaths of my whole immediate family. The year was 1941 and we were to drive from Pennsylvania out to Denver to see my paternal grandparents and return to the city in which my brother and I were born. I was 13 at the time. My mother, who had never driven, learned how to drive and got her license in order to relieve my dad on the long trip. There were no interstate highways in those days and it was a challenging journey. My brother and I, especially my brother, were not too comfortable with my mother's driving skills. However, off we went.
Well, everything was going smoothly until we cruising along on a road near Red Oak, Iowa. My mother was in the process of passing a truck when her left wheels got off on the soft shoulder and she seemed to be losing control . My dad grabbed the steering wheel and that's when we nearly bought the farm. We swerved across the road in front of the truck and plowed into a guard rail protecting a steep embankment. Fortunately, the truck driver had seen we were in trouble and avoided hitting us. The force of hitting the guard rail popped up the hood on the front of the car and the horn was stuck, blowing loudly. My brother reacted promptly, saying to my mother something like, "I knew you'd do it! I knew it!" The truck driver turned out to be from Pennsylvania, which we considered at that time to be a remarkable coincidence out there in Iowa. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, which I find rather amazing considering that we did not have seat belts in those days. Somehow, we ended up in a garage in Red Oak where, to this day, my brother and I both remember drinking the best tasting water of our lives. Were we in shock or was it truly exceptional water?
We left the car in Red Oak to be repaired and managed to continue our journey to Denver by train and I can still picture Grandma and Grandpa meeting us at the station in Denver. My memories of that visit in Denver are sparse but I do recall being impressed with how deep blue the sky was especially in the mountains. I was not so keen about driving in those mountains and, perhaps due to the height, remember getting carsick on the winding road coming down one mountain. It was to be the last time I ever saw my grandfather, who if I recall correctly, had been a delivery driver for Denver Dry Goods. My grandmother, on the other hand, lived to the ripe old age of 86 - now that I'll soon be 83, that doesn't seem so "ripe"! Hopefully, I'll remember to tell you of a humorous incident involving her and my mother many years later.
To finish off this section, I should note that we made our way back to Red Oak, picked our car and drove safely back home. On the return trip, my mother drove just a few miles and never drove again. Life continued uneventfully for the rest of that year until December 7, when the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed everything.
Finally, I've been meaning to point out that, in one of my StocksandNews columns, I discussed work by certain researchers on the nature of memory. In particular, they found that whenever we recall a memory from our brain's memory bank, we actually seem to pull up the memory and then, in effect, put back that memory into our memory bank. In the process of putting the memory back into the bank, we may slightly, or even substantially, alter details of the memory. The next time we recall that memory it may be different than it was the first time we recalled it. This process of repeatedly recalling and restoring memories accounts for cases in which recalled memories are totally different from what actually happened. Hence, caveat emptor, let the reader beware; I'm reasonably certain that the memories in these memoirs are substantially accurate. I'm hoping that my brother will catch any shared memories that may have been altered over time.
Next column - hopefully, before or on October 31. Incidentally, I do know that caveat emptor refers to a "buyer", not a reader. Didn't want you to think I had mistakenly restored that memory over the years!
Oh, in case you missed it and are a baseball fan, Ken Burns' latest documentary "The Tenth Inning"on Public TV was great. Don't miss it if you can find a repeat broadcast. And if you question why my hero was Indian Bob Johnson look up his name in Wikipedia - even I didn't know how impressive his statistics were.
Allen F. Bortrum